Charting the Offensive Line: Steelers vs. Titans

A great deal has been made of the struggles of the offensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2008.  Last season, the line and QB Ben Roethlisberger were overwhelmed in Philadelphia by the Eagles.  Willie Parker was injured.  Rashard Mendenhall would be injured a few weeks later in Baltimore.  The team used 3rd-stringer Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell and any warm bodies they could find.  Somehow they managed to win the Super Bowl.  The highlight film from the Super Bowl, like that of the AFC Championship Game vs. the Baltimore Ravens features numerous clips of Ben Roethlisberger running for his life; extending plays by running out of the pocket and demonstrating the type of creativity that defies the “book” on how to play the position.

During the Super Bowl run, Roethlisberger suggested that the offensive line had actually improved a great deal over the course of the season — and that he was not concerned about their ability to perform in tight situations.  Still, the offense struggled to score points.  The running game was still ineffective.  The team could not consistently convert on 3rd and short.  He said similar things after Thursday’s victory over the Tennessee Titans.  He was sacked 4 times and hit 9 times, overall.  The Steelers scraped together a mere 36 yards on the ground.  Nonetheless, they managed to win the time of possession by nearly a full 8 minutes over a team that featured Chris Johnson and LenDale White.  So, what happened?

Steel_LineFirst quarter, Possession #1:

Play 1:  Offensive coordinator knows the Titans are eager to get off the ball and initiates the action with a game plan designed to keep them off balance.  Wide receiver to the left side (Hines Ward).  Gain of 5 yards.

Play 2:  The Steelers come out in a pure run formation.  Two tight ends and a fullback loaded to the right side.  At the snap of the ball, the Titans have 9 defenders in the box.  Ben opens up to the left and hands the ball back to Willie Parker who is headed to the right behind rookie fullback Frank Summers.  Chris Kemoeatu (LG) was pulling on the play, but he stumbles and falls on the left side of center.  The entire Titan front line is blocked to the left.  Heath Miller gets an excellent block.  Summers, though, has two-blockers.  He appears to not see Titan LB Tulloch and instead takes on #20, Nick Harper.  Tulloch has a superior pursuit angle to Parker and is inside of Summers.  He makes the play in the backfield for a loss of 3 yards.  Kemoeatu should have been in position to block Tulloch as a pulling guard.  Kemo gets an F on this play.  Harper also evades Summers block.

Play 3:  On 3rd and 8, the Steelers are in an obvious passing down.  They line up in a 4-wide WR formation.The Titans bring 4 and drop 7.  On the right side of the line, Willie Colon stones Jevon Kearse.  On the left side, the Titans run a stunt.  Vanden Bosch attacks the guard (Kemo) and the DT rolls out to the left on Max Starks.  The pocket holds up wonderfully.  There is no pressure and Ben releases the ball 4 seconds after the snap.  The ball, apparently intended for rookie speedster Mike Wallace, is poorly underthrown.  Wallace is unable to bring in what would surely have been a touchdown.  The Steelers are forced to punt.

Possession #1 – Grade: B+.  The line provided excellent protection on 2 of the 3 plays on this possession.  On the other play, the majority of players made very effective blocks.

Possession #2:

Play1:  After a brilliant punt by Dan Sepulveda and a quick 3-and-out by the Titans, the Steelers get the ball on the Titans 43 yard line.  They line up in a 3 wide receiver set with Heath Miller in motion.  Miller goes left and comes back to the right.  The play call is another quick wide receiver screen.  This time, it goes to the right side to rookie Mike Wallace.  This play only went for 3 yards.  The Titans open up in a nickel defense and close quickly on Wallace.  Both linebackers immediately attack the line of scrimmage and then redirect to the sideline to ensure Wallace doesn’t get away from Nick Harper.  The play, though, is made by 2nd year DE William Hayes.  He reads screen, disengages from Heath Miller and makes the play with Harper.

Play 2:   Two wide receivers split to the left.  Two tight ends.  Miller in motion to the left.  Titans counter with 8 in the box and one DB on the line of scrimmage.  Heath Miller goes all the way across the formation and blocks on a wide receiver screen to the right for Santonio Holmes.  Gain of 10 yards.  First Down.  Hines Ward thows a decent crack back block on Keith Bullock.  🙂

Play 3:   On 1st and 10 from the Titans 30, the Steelers line up in a funky 3-back formation.  Parker lines up 8 yards in the backfield behind two fullbacks.  Limas Sweed is wide left and Heath Miller is on the line to the right.  The Titans counter, this time, with 10 defenders in the box.  Only Cortland Finnegan is more than five yards from the line of scrimmage.  He’s 5 and one-half yards away.  At the snap, the fullbacks break to the center and left.  Max Starks executes a great turn block on Kyle Vanden Bosch.  (KVB was quiet for most of the night.)  Roethlisberger, however, turns to the right.  Parker must run away from the fullbacks and behind substitute right guard Trai Essex and right tackle Willie Colon.  Colon gets blown up by Jason Jones.  Essex gets swallowed up by Tony Brown and Steven Tulloch fills  the hole to swallow up Parker.  Loss of 1.

Play 4:  2nd and 11.  Two tight ends – balanced.  Two wide outs to the left.  Willie Parker goes in motion to the left as a wide receiver.  Great call by Bruce Arians.  The Steelers run a middle screen to tight end Heath Miller.  The play goes for 9 yards.  Willie Colon makes a great block on LB David Thornton to spring Miller.  The play could have gone for more yards, but Trai Essex wasn’t able to make a downfield block on the safety.

Play 5:  3rd and 2 from the Titans 22 yard line.  Two tight ends stacked right.  Wide receivers left.  Single back.     Titans counter with 8 in the box.  At the snap the Titans show blitz, then back out.  Only the four down linemen come.  The Titans get a great push up the middle from Jones and Brown.  Kearse and Vanden Bosch are blocked one-on-one by Colon and Starks.  Parker is still in the backfield and looked like he made up his mind to help Max Starks before the snap.  Starks didn’t need any help and Parker was not looking at the powerful rush from the middle.  As the pocket collapses, Ben breaks left.  Too bad!  Willie Colon has flattened Kearse and the right side of the field is wide open.  Both of his outlet receivers, Parker and Miller are moving left, but are covered by Bullock and Tulloch.  Four seconds after the snap, Jones wraps up Ben — but Ben gets away momentarily.  Finally, 8 seconds after the snap of the ball, Ben is sacked for a 19 yard loss by Jones.  The Steelers are out of field goal range and the drive ends with another punt.

No question that the pocket collapsed on this play, but the first contact was not made until four seconds after the snap.  There was plenty of time to throw the ball away.  Given the field position at the time, the priority should have been to maintain possession within field goal range.  The QB had two opportunities to do that on this play and made other decisions.

Possession #2 – Grade: B.  On the positive plays in this drive, the line fulfilled their assignments.  On the negative plays, the Titans over-committed to stacking the run (10 defenders) or Ben refused to throw the ball away to give Jeff Reed an opportunity to establish a lead.  The Steelers might well have been ahead 10-0 at this point with the same quality of play from the offensive line.

With that said, some linemen did better than others.  I was surprised at how well Colon and Starks held up in the 1st quarter.  I was not surprised that Trai Essex struggled.  After all, he is not an exceptional player and he is Darnell Stapleton’s backup.  Justin Hartwig struggles quite a bit.

Possession #3:

Play 1:  Steelers open up with two tight ends to the right in a bunch formation with Hines Ward.  Santonio Holmes is lined up on the left.  Rashard Mendenhall is the single back.  The Titans come back with 8 in the box.  On his first carry of the season, he runs smack into the quarterback.  He’s able to fall forward for a yard.  I’m not sure who’s fault this was — but Kemo is pulling from left to right and Mendenhall is preparing to run right.  The problem, it seems, is that Ben opens up to hand off to the left.  Ben winds up between Kemo and Rashard – instead of behind both of them as he hands off to Rashard who should then follow Kemo.

Play 2:   Same formation.  Miller goes in motion into the backfield as a blocking back for Mendenhall.  The Steelers run a delay for about a yard.  The Titans, again, have 8 in the box.  This was an interesting play.  The Steelers line gets great blocks in all but one area.  They have a hat on a hat and have kicked out both defensive ends.  They’ve neutralized the tackles.  Keith Bullock, however, is coming in against Heath Miller.  Bullock comes in sideways and makes the tackle anyway.  Great play.  Gain of 2.

Play 3:   3 wide, with Heath Miller and Mewelde Moore.  The Titans have 4 down lineman (taking really wide splits) and have 3 defenders standing at the line of scrimmage.  There are 9 Titans within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage.  7 Titans blitz on the snap.  One defender, safety Michael Griffin, shadows Heath Miller.  Two seconds after the snap, the Titans smother Roethlisberger.  Neither Moore nor Miller blocked down to seal off the middle.  Hines Ward came in motion to the middle of the field and ran a slant — as did Santonio Holmes and Limas Sweed.  From the looks of the play, Ben probably figured he could get around Tony Jones and get the ball to Heath Miller.  Miller was bumped at the line by the defensive end and wasn’t looking for the ball when Ben looked in his direction.  Only Ward was open in the middle of the field.  Since that wasn’t his first look, there was no time to get the ball off.  This possession ended with a 53-yard punt by Sepulveda.

Possession #3 – Grade: C-.  On two of these plays, a measure of the culpabililty has to go to the QB.  (This will become evident when the Steelers open up the passing game in the 2nd half.)  The Steeler linemen were not blowing the Titans off the ball, but the design of plays, thus far, was intended to slow down the pass rush.  That strategy worked (even though Roethlisberger was sacked 2x on the first 3 possessions.  He would attempt 43 passes in the game and get sacked only twice more while throwing for 363 yards.)  For all that has been made of the ineffectiveness of the Steeler run game, the Titans defended the run with 8, 9 and 10 defenders in the box.  Very few NFL teams can run against 8-man fronts — and virtually none have ever done it with a 209-lb. running back and no fullback.

There are two schools of thought on this one.  You can either attempt to spread out a great defense and run through the gaps.  You can utilize passing formations and hope that they take a linebacker or defensive lineman off the field.  Or, you can power up and go heavy.  Sometimes, the actual benefit of going heavy is to wear down the defense.  Sometimes, carries are as important as yards because the carries dictate time of possession and tempo.  The Steelers didn’t have a lot of carries, but they did have a lot of time on the ball and in order to do that, the line had to block.

Possession #4:

Play 1:  The Steelers regained possession after Troy Polamalu made a spectacular one-handed interception in front of Titan rookie Kenny Britt. The Steelers come out with 2 tight ends in a bunch formation to the right.  Miller goes in motion to the middle and comes back to the right.  Matt Spaeth does a great job of standing up and engaging his defender.  The play, a dive by Parker, goes for 2 yards.  The Titans counter with 8 in the box and linebacker Tulloch makes another tackle.

Play 2:  Pittsburgh lines up with 4 wideouts in the gun.  Parker is in the backfield with Ben and he takes a draw for 1 yard up the middle.  The Titans had 6 in the box and 3 of the DB’s are flat at 5 yards off the line.  Parker slips attempting to make a cut against former Steeler FS Chris Hope.  If Parker hadn’t slipped, he might have gained an extra yard or two.  The play was well defended.

Play 3:  Facing another 3rd and 7, the Steelers are going to pass.  Four wide with Miller and Sweed to the left; Ward and Holmes to the right.  Mewelde Moore in the backfield.  Ben in the shotgun.  Kyle Vanden Bosch does the crazy man with flailing arms routine on Max Starks.  He winds up on his face.  I’m sure they’re having a chuckle about that at Heinz Field this week.   Willie Colon holds it down again in one-on-one coverage vs. the LDE Hayes.  Even the middle of the line holds up.  The guard-center-guard trio hold off the Titans two DT’s and there are no additional blitzers to pick up.  Roethlisberger has a clean pocket, passing lanes and time to throw.  Roethlisberger guns an interception to the right.  Vincent Fuller comes away with a pass intended for Santonio Holmes.

Possession #4 – Grade: B+.  The formations are predictable.  To this point, the Steelers have run in heavy formations and they have run to the right.  Many of the plays have been slow to develop (counters, draws, etc.) and have begun with Parker 7 yards in the backfield.  The Titans have countered with stacked fronts essentially daring the Steelers to pass.  When Roethlisberger has attempted to pass, he has had two pristine pockets (missed TD pass, interception); completed 4-4 screen passes for 29 yards; and been sacked twice because he chose to hold the ball.  The only passing route of longer than 15 yards resulted in an incompletion to a wide open receiver.

Possession #5:  To be continued.


  1. Great breakdown, T3. You basically confirmed what I saw early on and that is the Titans dared the Steelers to pass by employing 7, 8, and 9 man fronts. It would hard for any team to run the ball (especially w/o a full-back) under those conditions. That’s why I said i’m not really worried about our running game.

    Looking forward in reading the rest of your breakdown.

  2. I’m going to be working on a piece on Jake Delhomme after I get through the Steeler piece.

    I took a peek at their running game (they have a very nice run blocking line). On their first run, the Panthers lined up with 2 TE’s and a fullback. The Eagles had 8 in the box and blitzed the safety. DeAngelo Williams popped it for 7 to the outside because one of Philly’s linebackers was picked off by the fullback and the other took the wrong pursuit angle. He tried to get DW 2 yards in the backfield. If he came straight down the line, he would have been in perfect position to stuff the play. Tennessee’s linebackers rarely, if ever, take the wrong pursuit angle.

    I have a feeling that the problem with CAR is purely Delhomme and not the line — and certainly not the receivers. I’ll be interested to see if they try to make good use of Dante Rosario at TE.

  3. One other thing…

    CAR’s O-line executed this really cool block on that play. The line appeared to be zone blocking to the right. They all take a step to the right, and the Philly linemen crashed in to the left (stepping inside of the blockers hoping to blow up the play in the backfield). Instead, the CAR linemen execute turn blocks back to the LEFT and seal off the entire defensive line.

    Williams ran through a gaping hole. It was a thing of beauty, but it over in about 1.5 seconds. Those “big uglies” can really, really move.

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